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recipe for success

On Twitter, a follower complained about fees for art contests. Upset, he believed the contests guilty of extortion.  They aren’t (mostly).  Fees support overhead and occasionally help the institution make a small profit.  This in turn allows the institution to continue operating, which enables them to continue promoting art and artists.  The same is true in any industry.  When I tried to explain this, the artist became antagonistic.  “How many contests do you enter each year?” he asked.

The answer, not many.  Usually, they are a waste of both time and energy.  My job as an artist is to ensure my work sells so I can keep on making it.  Regardless of media, in my case steel and words, I evaluate ROI (return on investment).  If I don’t think the competition can engender present or future sales, I don’t bother.

Though I don’t pretend to know it all, and we’ll see if the recipe holds true for my books, here it is.


1.  Set a budget and stick to it.  How much can you afford to invest in your work?  This includes marketing (contests, advertising)  Don’t forget to include the cost of insurance, work space, internet, phone, etc.

2.  Including the budget for your art, know how much money you need each month. If you can’t keep the lights on, it’s hard to make work.

3.  Divide that total by the price of each piece (artwork, book, cd) and understand how many pieces you need to sell each month to survive.  If you can’t sell that many works right now, make a plan for how you will grow your audience and sell more. In the meantime, hold onto your job.  Your plan should include short and long term goals.  Short term goals should be attainable, as in “I will spend 1 hour a week marketing my work.”  Long term goals are broad statements like, “In five years, I plan to be making enough money to support myself from my work.”

4.  Celebrate your accomplishments.  As in “Yes!  I spent an hour marketing this week.  I deserve a kiss (a dinner out,  or a puppy),” but stay dedicated.  I use email and google calendar to remind myself to complete tasks.  For a long time, until it became habit, I got an email notice to complete a blog post every Tuesday.

5.  Be positive and understand that everyone in the business, from the galleries and agents to the publishing houses and museums also needs to make money from their efforts.  Supporting their endeavors to support you and other artists is not only the right thing to do, it is good business.  Complaining doesn’t get you anywhere.

6.  Work.  Hard.  Often.  This is the most important.  We all think our early works are fabulous.  Most of the time, they’re not.  They might have a spark of life, but there is not an artist out there that didn’t improve drastically over time.  Doing the work is essential.  Set a realistic goal for yourself to work a minimum amount of dedicated time each day.  Yes, every day.  It might be five minutes, or an hour, but working is essential.  You can’t achieve flow if you work in fits and starts.  Also, stay true to who you are and make work from the heart.  Classes are fine, but eventually, if you want to make it, you must develop your own, independent voice.

7.  Don’t sweat work you don’t like.  If you can make it, someone will resonate with it at some point.  Keep going. Not every piece, book, poem, song will be perfect.  That’s ok.  The things that frustrate you with one work will inform the next.

8.  Pay attention to your customers and respect them.  If they are not buying your work, it is likely that it doesn’t work for them.  It is up to you to make it easy for them.  Having a quality product includes paying attention to details.  Is your manuscript full of typos?  Is there a hanging mechanism on the back of your painting?  Does your sculpture need a base or pedestal?  If not, it is your fault the work isn’t selling.  Also, if you are not marketing to the right audience, your efforts are wasted.  As an abstract sculptor, it would be ridiculous to market my work to people who collect figurative works.  Don’t waste the time.

9.  Believe in yourself, be passionate about your work, and share your enthusiasm. Ultimately, your work is an expression of you.  Your collectors are buying you as much as they are buying your product.  Again, complaining, jealousy, or justifying your lack of sales by saying people are too dumb to get it won’t get you anywhere.

10.  Stay the course.  Revisit your goals and adjust them as necessary.  Remember, there are no excuses, only justifications.  Positive thinking and visualization are great, but only when backed by action.

Hope this helps.  One other piece of advice, if you are not familiar with business, take a business class.  Understanding business is as important as making great work. Learn everything you can about your industry — including social media, SEO, and all the other things scaring you.  It’s not rocket science and it will make a difference.

What do you think?  What’s your recipe?  Leave a comment and share your story.  I would love to hear from you.